Tag Archives: Early Iron Age

Breaking the silence with an article

Two years ago, during the summer and autumn of 2015 I worked on an article. I set an intention to account for and contextualize the Kvarnbo Hall based on the results of the investigations in 2014. I discussed the site and the building at the state of knowledge at that time in its regional and historical context, in comparison to the full data set of coeval houses on Åland. I also examined the development of Iron Age settlement and explanatorily discussed the rapid and large-scale colonization to Åland evident in the middle of the first millennium AD. As a result, a new perspective for our understanding of the emerging importance of Late Iron Age Åland was provided.

As the text turned out pretty well (if I might say so 😉 ), with lots of new knowledge potentially relevant beyond the Fennoscandian region, I decided to submit it to The Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology, a well-renowned, peer-review journal rated high among archaeology journals worldwide. I was, of course, well aware of the fact that not only is it more difficult to get accepted in journals of such calibre, but that the wait time might turn out to be rather long. I submitted the manuscript on the 8th of December 2015. And I received positive reviews on the 1st of February 2016. My revisions were submitted on the 12th of February 2016. But then, the great silence spread its wings over the whole thing… (This silence was, however, apologetically explained by the editor during the summer). The processing of my manuscript was resumed in the beginning of 2017 and on the 7th of March 2017 it was finally published online. Why do I provide such a lengthy account on this process? To illustrate the anxiety the author is faced with?? Well, partially, yes, but also because things obviously changed during the excavation 2016 and certain aspects of this article written in 2015, the ones related to the building remains as seen from the infra-red aerial photo, should probably be reconsidered, at least, to a certain degree. In general though, I am very happy with this research being published and thereby providing some interesting stuff on the Late Iron Age settlement archaeology on Åland for a wide audience.

You can find the text following this link: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/9k2H9XfnYqtS7MjTdQAD/full  (the journal provides a number of free downloads of the full article, so first come – first served 😀 )

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From cairns to people

Big cairn

EIA cairns may be rather grand like this one at Le 19.7/2

While houses of the Early Iron Age Åland remain lost, there are some 150 sites with over 1400 features on Åland that are registered as traces of graves belonging to EIA. During EIA, dead were cremated and buried in stone settings and cairns with only few grave goods. In contrast to the Bronze Age tradition of burials in large cairns that were built directly on bedrock and located on high grounds close to water (and, occasionally, revisited during EIA), EIA cairns on Åland are smaller and burials individual. Also, although there are EIA cemeteries close to coast, the majority of EIA graves have been located in some distance from water, being built on low sandy ridges. Therefore, it is mainly the setting and the height above sea level that has been and still is considered decisive during landscape surveys and inventories while assigning an archaeological period of either Bronze Age or EIA to cairns and stone settings.

Only about 4% of the registered EIA cairns and stone settings on Åland have been investigated and wide-scale, contextualising analyses of this material are few. Therefore, the value and importance of Helena Edgren’s work must be emphasized as her research in the beginning of 1980s is still the best and practically the only analysis on the subject. Edgren analysed the geographical and topographical location of EIA cairns on Åland pointing out 3 different groups of loci:

  1.        inland, around forested mires
  2.        inland, by arable land
  3.        on the coast
Little cairn

EIA cairns may also look (and usually do look) quite so inconspicuous like this newly found and not yet registered little cairn in Lemland

According to Edgren, the municipalities of Eckerö, Jomala and Sund (?) had most of the located cairns and were thus most densely populated areas during EIA. Today, the situation is somewhat different – the highest number of registered EIA cairns is in Eckerö and Lemland as in both municipalities there are about 400 cairns located, but also Jomala and Hammarland have around 200 registered EIA cairns each (I count 224 resp. 188). In Lemland and Hammarland, cairns are almost exclusively located inland, around forested mires, while in Eckerö and Jomala these are found all over the municipalities’ territory displaying all three types of loci. Edgren argues that EIA cairns were built by three populations with different economic structures as indicated by the geographical and topographical locations: first group was involved in inland fishing and cattle rising, second in farming, and third in seal hunting and open sea fishing. Edgren also points out that, in some cases, the tradition to bury in cairns extended into the Late Iron Age making the boundary between ‘old’ and ‘new’ ambiguous and clearly signifying settlement continuity between these two periods.

Although Edgren’s discussion on EIA Åland is simple, her research extended beyond the diagnostic features of EIA monuments and brought the behaviour of people in the past closer to the fore. But there is no question that EIA is one of the least studied periods of Åland. And it worries me gravely since this constitutes background for our understanding of the Late Iron Age…….

Lost houses of Early Iron Age

Examples of the so-called Morby ware from Åland (ÅM 632:138, 652:61 and 77).

Examples of the so-called Morby Ware from Åland – finds ÅM 632:138, 652:61 and 77 stored in the Museum of Åland.

Early Iron Age on Åland is represented with very few finds and “settlement decline” is the keyword for the period. But I find this statement unsatisfactory and strongly suspect EIA settlement being downgraded.

When it comes to EIA settlement sites, well, until the excavations in 1981-82 in Godby (Fi 8.11), there were no EIA settlement sites known from the Åland islands. And even today, more than 30 years later, there are only about 12-13 EIA settlement sites of which the majority might belong to EIA as well as to Bronze Age (or to both periods). The thing is that EIA settlements on Åland as we know them are characterized by very small number of finds and almost non-existent cultural layers. Few have been investigated, there are hardly any radiocarbon dates from these sites and identification has been based on a certain type of pottery with the impression of grass and/or cat-paw ornament – this pottery style is known as Morby Ware and has its roots in the Bronze Age, but was used well into EIA (it is dated from ca. 800 BC until 300 AD). Thus, judging from the available settlement archaeological material, the center of gravity of EIA settlement is to be considered in the beginning of the period while for some unknown reason the settlement seems to have gradually thinned out during the later part of the period. This perception also finds strong support in the understanding that Late Iron Age began with large-scale colonization to Åland.

In archaeology, it is highly visible, spectacular and physically well-defined ancient monuments that have always drawn the attention. Although archaeologists today recognize the importance of less visible and know how to excavate such past, settlement sites are part of much larger human landscape with no definite borders making settlement archaeological investigations much more complicated and in need for funding that today’s systems are not willing to provide for such ‘unimpressive’ monuments. Therefore, EIA settlement sites are often located and studied as a result of large scale rescue/contract archaeological projects conducted with targeted research designs. In Scandinavia, it was rescue/contract archaeology opening up large areas for archaeological investigations that markedly changed the understanding of EIA settlements and enhanced our knowledge leading to the fact that EIA house foundations, for example, are now found on a regular basis. But on Åland, rescue/contract archaeological projects of such scale and design are rare (read: nonexistent) and ‘unspectacular’ sites are just not found yet, as was the case with Scandinavian archaeology decades ago. Therefore, instead of emphasizing “settlement decline” on Åland during EIA, the paradoxical situation with the absent source-material should be discussed.

Published Iron Age

“One ship after the other landed in the bays and discharged its cargo of people, animals and goods” – this is how Matts Dreijer has described what he called The Great Colonization wave to the Åland islands in the middle of the 6th century AD. And although there are different nuances in the interpretations, in general, the researchers seem to have an agreement that there was a rapid population growth due to large-scale colonization to Åland in the beginning of the Late Iron Age (LIA), which, furthermore, was preceded by the long period of settlement decline during the Early Iron Age (EIA).

Vikings land at Vinland in Newfoundland by Tom Lovell

Paining by Tom Lovell (Vikings land at Vinland in Newfoundland) is just perfect to illustrate Dreijer’s concept of The Great Colonization wave. From http://americangallery.wordpress.com/2012/12/22/tom-lovell-1909-1997/vikings-land-at-vinland-on-newfoundland/

In fact, colonization to Åland was hypothesized already in the middle of the 19th century by Karl August Bomansson – the first scholar ever dealing with the archaeology of the Åland islands. Emanating from his studies on LIA grave mounds, Bomansson suggested that Åland was gradually populated and from several different territories of Sweden. Also after Bomansson, more than one region in Sweden has been suggested as the place of origin for the new population of Åland in the beginning of LIA (f.ex. by M.Dreijer, but also by A. Hackman, M. Núñez and J. Callmer), while Mälaren area in the eastern middle Sweden is considered to have had the greatest cultural impact. Ella Kivikoski is an exception in this connection, because her investigations suggested early colonization from Finland. There are also researchers (such as B. Roeck Hansen) who suggest this early colonization from both Sweden and Finland. Basically, the only researcher very-very carefully questioning if there was colonization at all in the beginning of LIA is Jan-Erik Tomtlund; unfortunately, he does neither motivate nor discuss his skepticism in this regard.

No matter the suggested direction of the colonization or the actuality of the colonization in the beginning of LIA, Viking Age on Åland is uniformly agreed to have been dominated by Swedish population and culture. But in the very beginning of the 11th century something quite remarkable occurs on Åland when compared to the Baltic Sea region in general – around the year 1000 traditional archaeological source material just disappears for a number of years. And that has puzzled the researchers; no consensus exists and quite a variety of explanations has been suggested. Settlement discontinuity and early medieval re-colonization have been hypothesized, especially by place-name researcher Lars Hellberg whose research triggered rather lively discussion arguing for the opposite. Also, settlement regression has been suggested as well as cultural transgression (f.ex. by Núñez and Roeck Hansen). Then, Dreijer has strongly argued for the early Christianization of Åland that would explain the disappearance of the traditional archaeological source material, and, for example, Tomtlund considers that to be a possibility, while Kivikoski has always neglected Dreijer’s idea of the early Christianization.

To sum up, there are four interesting aspects that seem to characterize the published state and, thereby, our current understanding of the Iron Age on the Åland islands: 1) settlement decline during EIA, 2) colonization in the beginning of LIA, 3) domination of Swedish population and culture during Viking Age, and 4) abrupt disappearance of the traditional archaeological source material in the end of LIA.